June 16, 2012. Kershaw County. A South Carolina county board is playing politics with the fabric and structure of our nation. An ordinance was introduced, and defeated, that would have eliminated the county’s Sheriff’s Department and replaced it with a government-appointed “police department”. Opponents raised a silent army to stand against the measure. It wasn’t difficult. An invisible army of volunteers has been waiting in the wings for decades. They call themselves Posse Comitatus.
Posse Comitatus - the Power of the County.
Unbiased observers might say that Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews brought this upon himself, and thrust the issue to the forefront of the nation. The South Carolina Sheriff had been losing supporters since demanding more money and imposing unique changes to the department. A rigid authoritarian of law and order, Sheriff Matthews imprisons teens for possession of small amounts of marijuana and charges fees to the families of the deceased for police escorts of their funeral procession, just to name a couple examples.
But ultimately whether the county board realized it or not, this issue came down to a battle that has waged across the US for over a century. The argument is over one simple and direct question – what body of government has final authority over the people? Some say the federal government always has supreme authority over all lower levels of government. Some are believers in ‘states rights’. Others insist the responsibility falls to the most local level of government – the county Sheriff. Posse Comitatus is Latin for “power of the county”. And the debate is as old as government itself.
The Kershaw County Council introduced a short measure that would abolish the “Sheriff’s Department” and instead create a “Police Department” under the authority of the county board. The local county ordinance cited SC state law for the authority:
‘South Carolina Code Ann. Section 4-9-33 provides for the creation of the county police department and provides for the implementation of an ordinance adopted by county council which would duplicate or replace the law enforcement functions of a sheriff.’
The ordinance also shifted responsibility for electing the county Sheriff from a vote by the people to appointment by the county board. If passed, the measure would have then moved to the next election ballot for voter approval.
The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878
During the period of American post-civil war Reconstruction, local town and county councils were giving themselves authority to take command of US Army soldiers stationed within their local boundaries and using them as private armies to enforce the whims of small, local government bodies. The US Congress responded by passing the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878. The law demanded that any federal troops being used by local authorities be automatically put under the authority and control of the County Sheriff.
Supporters of Posse Comitatus insist that the spirit and intent of the law wrests ultimate control of authority over the people from the federal government and gives it to the local sheriff in all instances. Not surprising, the federal government, and indeed most state governments, have refused to accept the legitimacy of the 1878 Act.
President Bush acknowledges Posse Comitatus
Without referring to it by name, President George W. Bush acknowledged that his authority was surprisingly limited when it came to US military troops being dispatched on American soil. During Hurricane Katrina, the President deployed the US military to Louisiana and other parts of the Gulf Coast to rescue survivors and restore law and order. At the time, the President remarked that for the federal government to have any affect, “it may require change of law.” The change he was referring to was the elimination of the Posse Comitatus Act.
Writing about the dilemma resulting from Katrina, the CATO Institute commented, ‘The Posse Comitatus Act is no barrier to federal troops providing logistical support during natural disadsters…What it does is set a high bar for the use of federal troops in a policing role. That reflects America’s traditional distrust of using standing armies to enforce order at home, a distrust that’s well-justified.’
The modern Underground Posse Comitatus
During the 1980’s and 90’s, many frightened and outraged Americans were dismayed by the events of Ruby Ridge, Waco, Oklahoma City and a dozen other civil war type confrontations. Some circled the wagons in their own local areas where they discovered and used the Posse Comitatus Act as their vehicle of legitimacy.
Tens of thousands of newly enlightened, mainstream Americans suddenly found themselves in the same ranks as White Nationalists and Christian Identity groups with names like The Cross, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, and the Church of Jesus Christ Christian, aka Aryan Nations. For more information on the subject and timeframe, readers are encouraged to obtain the book, ‘Committee of the States: Inside the Radical Right’ by Cheri Seymour. The work details the underground revolutionary army that together took on the slang name, the Posse Comitatus.
Many of those groups didn’t stop at the fringes of the extreme and instead became militant, reactionary, underground, revolutionary cells. For just one example, visit the website Posse-Comitatus.org. The website is a throwback to the time, featuring and promoting Skinhead oi music like the British band Skrewdriver and religious theologies like Odinism.
South Carolina ordinance defeated
Probably without even realizing that this issue has surfaced and disappeared numerous times throughout American history, usually on the brink of military struggle, the Kershaw County board defeated the ordinance that would have abolished the Sheriff’s Department and replaced it with appointed police. According to a report in The State, South Carolina’s online newspaper, many of those that packed the hearing room in support of Posse Comitatus weren’t supporters of Sheriff Matthews. But they were supporters of a Sheriff elected by and accountable to the people over a county police chief appointed and controlled by politicians.
One local resident who came out to voice his opposition to the ordinance warned the county board, “The county wanted changes, and that’s why we voted for Sheriff Matthews. When you guys are up for re-election, we may vote for changes again. You guys need to think hard about what you’re trying to do.” The man wasn’t alone. According to the above account, approximately 300 people descended on the county building to support the idea of a Sheriff’s Department liable to the voters.
In the end, the ordinance wasn’t just defeated, it wasn’t even brought up for discussion or debate. When the proposal was read to the full 7-member council, not one elected councilman would ‘second’ the motion, allowing it to move into debate phase, which would have been followed by a vote. The ordinance died an immediate death.
Both sides speak out
After the rousing defeat of the county ordinance, Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews was humble. “I know some of these people don’t support me,” Matthews told local media, “but they support the concept of an elected Sheriff. They know if he’s a bum, then they can throw him out.”
3 of the 7 County board members spoke to the gathered crowd after the ordinance’s defeat. The nervous politicians tried to persuade the energized audience that the motion wasn’t an attack on the Sheriff or a power grab by the council. “This is not an attack on Sheriff Matthews as he would like you to believe,” one Councilman announced, “There was mass hysteria before information even got out.” At the same time, over 100 supporters gathered around the Sheriff in the parking lot where they applauded and cheered.
The Sheriff only looked out and said, “Thank you again for coming.” “No, thank you!” someone shouted back. For many spectators across the country, they would probably thank them all. The US Constitution, state Constitutions and the rule of law are all just pieces of paper in the end. It takes actual people to care enough to show up and defend them sometimes. And that’s what happened in Kershaw County, South Carolina.
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